Introduction: To examine the natural history of subchondral bone cysts and to determine whether knee cartilage loss and risk of joint replacement is higher in knees with cysts, compared with those with bone marrow lesions (BMLs) only or those with neither BMLs nor cysts.
Methods: The symptomatic knee in 132 subjects with knee osteoarthritis (OA) was imaged by using magnetic resonance imaging at baseline and 2 years later. Tibial cartilage volume, subchondral bone cysts, and BMLs were measured by using validated methods. Knee arthroplasty over a 4-year period was ascertained.
Results: Bone cysts were present in 47.7% of subjects, 98.1% of whom also had BMLs. Over a 2-year period, 23.9% of subjects had cysts progress, 13.0% developed new cysts, and 11.4% had cysts regress. Bone cysts at baseline were associated with lower medial and lateral tibial cartilage volume compared with those with BMLs only or those with neither (P for trend 0.004 and <0.001, respectively). Annual medial cartilage volume loss was greatest in those with bone cysts compared with those with BMLs only or those with neither (9.3%, 6.3%, and 2.6%, respectively; P for trend, <0.001). As the severity of bone abnormality in the medial compartment increased from no BMLs or cysts present, to BMLs only, to subchondral bone cysts present, the risk of knee replacement was increased (odds ratio, 1.99; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.01 to 3.90; P = 0.05).
Conclusions: When cysts are present, cartilage loss and risk of knee replacement are higher than if only BMLs are present, suggesting that cysts identify those most likely to benefit from prevention of disease progression. As cysts can regress, they may also provide therapeutic targets in knee OA.